Collaborating Witness

Burl Clark was feeling perplexed when he entered Duffy's Tavern on a Tuesday mid-afternoon. He had no idea why he received a phone call out of the blue from a Washington Post reporter asking for his time. Hillsboro was 400 miles from DC.

The tavern was relatively empty for this time of day so it was easy to spot two middle-aged women seated at a corner table. Burl assumed they were from The Post.

"Mr. Clark?" The older of the two women asked when she saw Burl approaching.

"Yes," Burl confirmed.

"I'm Shelly McGovern," she said, standing and offering her hand. "We spoke on the phone."

Burl accepted her hand in a shake. She looked to be in her early fifties with long brown hair, a pointed chin, and thick glasses.

"Nice to meet you," Burl said politely.

"And this is my colleague, Betsy Rogers," Ms. McGovern said.

The second woman stayed seated but she reached her hand out and Burl accepted it. She was younger than Ms. McGovern with short blond hair and too much jewelry in Burl's opinion.

"Would you please join us?" Ms. McGovern asked.

"Of course," Burl agreed, take a seat between them.

The waiter appeared. Burl saw that the two women were drinking coffee. He ordered a coke.

"I must confess I'm very confused," Burl said when the waiter left. "Why would two reporters from The Washington Post come all this way to talk to me?"

"We're working on a story," Ms. McGovern informed him.

"Couldn't a phone call do?" Burl asked. "Health care is a pretty cut and dry subject."

"It's important to see your physical reactions and expressions during your responses to our questions," Ms. Rogers explained. "And we're not here to do a health care story."

"What kind of story are you here for?" Burl asked, still clueless.

"The nomination of the Under Secretary of the Navy," Ms. McGovern said.

"Who's that?"

The two reporters exchanged glances.

"You don't keep up with this stuff?" Ms. Rogers asked.

"I'm getting kind of burned out with all the chaos," Burl admitted as the waiter appeared with his coke.

"You were in the Navy, right?" Ms. McGovern asked as she placed a small tape recorder on the table. Ms. Rogers pulled out a steno pad and a pen.

"Twenty two years," Burl told them. "I retired as a Chief Hospital Corpsman."

"What do you do now?" Ms. Govern asked.

"I'm a Senior Consultant with Blue County Medical Group," he said. "Insurance and health care options advice, mostly."

"Did you serve with Captain Jim Cole?" Ms. Rogers asked.

Burl rubbed his chin in response to the question, surprised and quickly suspicious hearing that name being mentioned. "He was a Commander then."

"You weren't aware that he's been nominated as Under Secretary for the Navy?" Ms. McGovern asked.

"Seriously?" Burl said with disbelief. "No, no clue. I haven't heard from him since he transferred from our command."

"He retired as a Captain about ten years later," Ms. Rogers said. "He's been working for a defense contractor. His last Navy tour was with the Pentagon. He believes in building up the fleet."

"I remember he was an Academy graduate," Burl replied. "I think he came from Ohio originally. His wife was Hispanic. I only met her a couple of times."

"He previously served as a deputy undersecretary of defense," Ms. McGovern added.

"Well, he did well for himself, didn't he?" Burl said.

"His son is a career Marine," Ms. Rogers remarked.

"I think the kid was like six when I knew him," Burl said.

"Did you enjoy serving with Commander Cole?" Ms. McGovern asked.

Burl sat back in his chair and studied the two reporters. "Exactly what kind of story are you two working on?"

"How would you characterize Commander Cole as a Naval Officer?" Ms. McGovern asked. "His Navy Core Values?"

"What did you think of him?" Ms. Rogers wanted to know.

Burl eyed the two reporters suspiciously. "Commander Cole commanded a Naval Reserve Center," Burl answered. "Training and Administering Naval Reservists. He knew the program well. He was supportive to the mission which sometimes gets a bad rep and is stigmatized by Active Duty counterparts."

"Did you ever have any concerns about him?" Ms. McGovern asked.

"I'm thinking maybe I should be just giving my name, rank and serial number to your questions," Burl realized.

"What is it you're not telling us about Commander Cole?" Ms. McGovern asked.

"I really have no idea what you're talking about," Burl lied.

"You served with a second class corpsman at that command, didn't you?" Ms. McGovern asked. "Andrea Evans?"

Burl scratched his beard, caught off guard by the question. "She was a reservist," Burl finally answered, looking even more nervous now.

"She left the program during that time, right?" Ms. Rogers asked.

"Well, her enlistment was up that year," Burl explained. "I think she was applying for a job that would have made continuing with the Reserves difficult."

"We talked with Ms. Evans, Chief," Ms. McGovern revealed.

"She contacted us, actually," Ms. Rogers informed him.

"Oh?" Burl was surprised by the revelation.

"She told us we could talk to you if we could track you down," Ms. McGovern said.

"Why would I want to say anything?" Burl asked.

"To collaborate her story," Ms. Rogers explained.

"You want me to be a Collaborating Witness?" Burl asked with disbelief.

"As an anonymous source," Ms. McGovern clarified.

"We can tell you that Ms. Evans is not the only person to complain about Commander Cole," Ms. Rogers said. "Three other women have told similar stories."

"You're trying to Roy Moore this guy?" Burl asked.

"Do you believe this person should be Undersecretary of the Navy?" Ms. McGovern asked.

Burl stared at them for the longest moment. "What did Andrea tell you?" He finally asked.

"You have to tell us," Ms. Rogers said.

"For collaboration," Burl realized.

"Exactly," Ms. McGovern said.

"So this is part of the whole #Me Too thing and the Woman's March and the stories of male sexual harassment and abuse," Burl sighed.

"Do you believe this man should be Undersecretary of the Navy?" Ms. McGovern asked again.

"Of course not," Burl snapped. "What kind of a bastard do you take me for?"

"What can you tell us, Chief?" Ms. Rogers asked quietly.

"Petty Officer Evans came to me during a Reserve Weekend," Burl revealed, letting out a long breath. "She was upset. She told me that Commander Cole sexually assaulted her."

"Where? When?" Ms. McGovern asked.

"She was at the Reserve Center on a Thursday night making up a drill," Burl said. "I had her update some medical records."

"You were there?"

"No, Petty Officer Weber had the duty that night," Burl explained. "Apparently, Commander Cole came to the Center at the end of the drill and relieved Weber. He asked Evans to stay behind while the other drillers left."

"Do you know why he asked her to stay?" Ms. McGovern asked.

"So he could assault her, obviously," Burl said sarcastically.

"Is that what he told her?" Ms. McGovern asked.

"Of course not," Burl sighed. "He said he wanted her to check out a burn on his arm. He said he had an accident while taking something out of the oven."

The two reporters exchanged glances again.

"What happened?" Ms. McGovern asked.

"Evans waited until he secured the building and then she took him into the clinic to examine the burn," Burl revealed.

"Nobody else was in the building?"

"No," Burl said. "Evans told me he bent her over the examination table and assaulted her from behind."

"Penetration?" Ms. McGovern asked.

"Yes, they had sex," Burl confirmed. "Evans said she didn't fight him but she did ask him not to do what he was doing."

"Did you report it?" Ms. McGovern asked.

"She asked me not to," Burl sighed. "She was married. A newborn at home. She didn't want the scandal. She left the Reserves."

"You never told anybody?" Ms. Rogers asked.

"Never," Burl said with guilt. "Biggest regret of my life."

"Why didn't you report it after she left?" Ms. Rogers asked.

"Because I was chicken shit," Burl confessed. "I was a First Class hoping to make Chief. Cole wrote my eval. Determined my ranking and recommendation. He was popular and well liked. A respected officer. So I let it go." He glanced at the two reporters. "I was complicit," He admitted. "I was just as guilty as him."

"Andrea confided in you because she trusted you," Ms. Rogers said with compassion. "You respected her wishes. You did what she asked."

"And now you honor her by collaborating her story," Ms. McGovern said.

"It lines up with what she said?" Burl asked hopefully.

"Close enough," Ms. McGovern said. "And she told her sister basically the same story at the time."

"How is she?" Burl asked. "I never saw her again."

"She found courage through the others who've come forward recently," Ms. McGovern reported. "They gave her strength to tell her story."

"Are you going to run with it?" Burl asked.

"Yes," Ms. McGovern said. "We have enough sourcing and verification to comfortably go with what we have."

"Good," Burl said. "Sorry you had to come all this way."

"Thank you for talking with us," Ms. McGovern said as she signaled for the waiter.

"We have a seven o'clock flight back," Ms. Rogers explained.

"Boy, you guys sure are methodical and unemotional," Burl said.

"We have to be if we're going to do our jobs right," Ms. McGovern remarked.

"Well, thanks for doing the good work," he said, standing and shaking the two reporters hands. "Good luck with the story."

"You've done a good thing, Mr. Clark," Ms. McGovern told him.

"Better late than never?" Burl asked.

"We needed two independent collaborating witnesses," Ms. McGovern told him. "Your verification here validates Ms. Evans."

"It's a shame any of this ever happened," Burl sighed.

"It is," Ms. Rogers agreed. "But it's never too late to seek justice."

The three left Duffy's and Burl watched the two reporters get into their rental car. He stood motionless on the street long after the car departed, wondering if he had really done the right thing after all these years.